Over the past few years, Disney has made it a point to center their stories around ethnically diverse characters and cultures. And last week, Walt Disney Studios finally introduced their first Sephardic Jewish princess, Rebekah. And just in time for Hanukkah.
In September, Disney announced that Princess Rebekah (voiced by Sephardic-Jewish actress Jamie-Lynn Sigler) would make her debut on the Disney Junior show Elena of Avalor where she would teach Elena and her kingdom about Jewish traditions and the story of Chanukah.
In the December 6th episode titled “Festival of Lights”, Rebekah becomes stranded on the coast of Avalor while returning to her home of Galonia, a Latino-Jewish kingdom to celebrate Chanukah with her grandmother Miriam.
Stressed that she won’t be able to give her family a good Chanukah celebration, Elena and her family take Rebekah in and make sure Chanukah runs as smoothly as possible. They help Rebekah make a new menorah to light the candles, learn how to cook traditional Chanukah food, and Miriam gives a G-rated history lesson on the holiday.
Elena and her family are receptive when it comes to learning about Chanukah and they never feel the need to force their Christian beliefs on Rebekah and her family. It’s understood that different cultures and traditions can exist without feeling the need to talk about your own. The importance of Chanukah and what it means to Rebekah and her family takes precedence.
One of the best things about the episode and Rebekah’s debut is that she doesn’t look like a stereotypical American Jewish character. Her dark hair and olive skin pay tribute to Sephardic Jewish culture, an ethnic subset of Judaism with roots in Spain and Portugal (although Sephardic Jews now live in countries around the world like Israel, France, Argentina, Morrocco, and the U.S.).
Ashkenazi Jewish culture, which originated in Eastern Europe, is often what is portrayed in Ameican media; think The Nanny, Seinfeld, and The Goldbergs. Unfortunately, Sephardic Jews seem to be erased from the mainstream Jewish narrative.
There’s a common misconception that all Latinx people and Latinx Americans are either Catholic or Christian. That’s why show creator and executive producer Craig Gerber wanted to make a point to show kids and their families just how diverse the Latinx culture is and that Latinx Jews exist. In an interview with Remezcla, he said,
“It has always been important to us on Elena of Avalor to showcase the diversity of Latin and Hispanic cultures. We decided to focus on Chanukah and a part of the culture that we hadn’t yet represented on the show.”
But the episode wasn’t perfect.
Many Sephardic Jewish viewers who tuned in for the episode were upset (and rightfully so) that Rebekah was using Yiddish words like “bubbe” and “nosh”, especially since Yiddish is a language that originated with Ashkenazi Jews. Instead, they should have had her using Ladino words like “avuela.”
It’s disappointing that Disney couldn’t do a better job of representing Sephardic Jewish culture but the show creator’s defense was even worse. Gerber took to Twitter to write,
“When we know we’re only getting one shot at representation in a fairytale world, we’ve always opted for greater inclusion, which sometimes means blending traditions here and there. It’s the same for the series in general.”
While it’s admirable to try to go for “greater inclusion,” lumping cultures together is certainly not the answer, especially when Sephardic Jews get such little representation to begin with.
Despite all the problematic aspects of the episode, Rebekah’s presence does mark an important first step for Disney, especially at such a crucial time for American Jews.
It’s no secret that antisemitism is once again on the rise in the United States. According to the ADL, between 2018 to 2019, there were 6,768 incidents of antisemitism in the US with over 3,700 of those incidences occurring in 2019. And with Trump continuing to empower white supremacists and Nazis, those numbers will only continue to increase.
It has been proven time and time again just how important representation is. It allows people to be seen, but it also educates the public about cultures and identities that they may not be exposed to. There are still plenty of people in the country who have never met a Jewish person, so this may be their first glimpse into Judaism.
Rebekah is more than just a children’s cartoon character, she represents millions of kids around the world who are just like her. They get to see their culture take a front seat, and be celebrated. And they finally get to know what it feels like to look at a television screen and have a Disney princess to look up to.
Here’s hoping that we get to see more of Rebekah. And next time, maybe they’ll get it right.